Three Kings

Three Kings (1999)
Warner Home Video
Cast: George Clooney, Mar k Wahlberg, Ice Cube
Extras: 2 Commentary tracks, Documentaries, Featurettes, Deleted scenes, Photo gallery, Trailer and more...

"Three Kings" was lauded as one of the best films of last year by many critics, and since I had not seen the movie before, I was eagerly looking forward to Warner home Video’s DVD release of the film. It is finally here and with its wealth of supplements, it makes an impressive show, but the question is, does the film really live up to expectations? In a nutshell, yes it did, but read on.

During the disarmament when the Gulf War is over, reservists Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) and Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze) make a curious find. While stripping down the surrendering men of Saddam Hussein’s army, they discover a map in one man’s rectum. They take it away for examination, but news about the peculiar find travels fast and it attracts Archie Gates (George Clooney). He gives the map one quick look and knows that it marks the location where Saddam is hiding his spoils of war, namely jewelry and millions worth in gold bullion. Without much of a job back home, the four men decide to undertake a secret mission in the morning hours to go and steal Saddam’s Gold without knowledge of the US Army. It would be their pay for their coming to this senseless war.

Quickly they devise a crude plan how to go about the heist and set out with a Humvee in the morning hours, soon arriving at the little village where the riches are supposed to be hidden. After some persuasive action and interrogation they actually find the gold and with the help of the local townspeople are soon on their way back… almost.

Just as they are about to leave they witness how men of Saddam’s army are openly violating the Shiite townspeople. In a desperate attempt, Hussein had alarmed all his men to bring the democratic uprising among his people to a swift and violent end, against all official regulations. Caught in the middle the four American soldiers helplessly watch as the dictator’s henchmen begin killing innocent people and decide to take sides. In a shootout they make sure the townspeople are unharmed, but it made themselves war criminals, and soon Saddam’s men are hot on their heels. Despite the lure of the gold and a bright future, the men decide to stand up for the unarmed civilians that include women and children, and face an army that is superior in numbers and strength.

If anything comes to mind to describe "Three Kings," the words provocative and gritty jump to mind immediately. From the opening seconds to the end, the film has a very unique visual and dramatic style that makes it stand out among other movies. Much of the film is reminiscent with CNN-type footage with jerky, fast-panning movement, grainy images, and bits and pieces of dialogue, almost taken out of context. It is a surreal experience at times that takes a little while to get used to. During the film’s first 20 minutes I found it hard to focus on what’s going on. The fast-paced editing, the lack of a real exposition and the snappy dialogues made it difficult to completely follow what is happening. Nonetheless, once the action gets under way, be sure to keep your seatbelt on, because "Three Kings" offers you a non-stop action ride with a remarkably deep social commentary.

The movie also contains quite a bit of humor, although its nature is not the in-your-face kind of comedy that makes you laugh out loud. It is the absurdity of the moment you witness that will make you smile on occasion, especially in the light that these events are nonetheless highly authentic and believable. "Three Kings" is beautifully acted, and while George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg come across very routinely I found especially Ice Cube to be a very pleasant surprise. All the characters are well-drawn and dimensional and the growing anxiety as the situation spins out of control can clearly be read from their faces.

"Three Kings" has a very intriguing gritty visual style that includes very kinetic use of the camera and off-the-wall framing. But also the use of different shutter speeds, film speeds, silver retention (a process that has been abused ad absurdum), graininess that feels organic, and other visual styles are combined in the movie to great effect. The result is a movie that is drained of color and creates an atmosphere that emphasizes the dryness and desolation of the desert to the point that you can almost taste the dust on your tongue.

Warner Home Video’s release of the movie on this DVD maintains exactly that look. The film is presented in a <$16x9,16x9 enhanced> transfer in its 2.35:1 <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio and reveals a good amount of detail. Without any noticeable edge-enhancement the transfer is sharp and has very good shadow delineation. Blacks are absolutely solid without losing definition and highlights are high contrasting and harsh, just as the visual style dictates. The graininess in much of the footage is finely reproduced in this DVD presentation, but some compression artifacts in the form of slight <$pixelation,pixelation> are evident, especially in these grainy scenes. Other than that, the transfer is beautifully rendered without flaws or artifacts.

"Three Kings" comes with a dynamic <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> audio track. As expected, the track is very aggressive and makes very efficient use of the discrete surround channels. Especially some of the explosions and most notably the slow motion shoot-outs have stunning spatial integration that let you hear the bullets flying all around your head. With a good and unexaggerated bass extension, the track has plenty of low ends but without the overemphasis found on many other action sound tracks. The same is true for the dialogue mix, which is surprisingly up front compared to many modern movies where sound effects are generally mixed at extremely high levels, often drowning out dialogues. There is no such problem on "Three Kings" as all dialogue is understandable at any time and well leveled with the rest of the mix. I was also impressed with the almost minimalist score the movie has, using ethnic themes and motifs to create an Arabian ambience that perfectly suits the film without ever obtruding on the action.

The disc features two separate <$commentary,commentary track>s. The first one feature director David Russel and it is a constant source of information for its entire running length. Without breaks or notable pauses, Russel explains the motivations and thinking behind each scene and also points out how his research work influenced the look and feel of the movie at any given time. In the end you know that he has created a movie that he has very strong feelings for on a variety of levels and it grows the appreciation for the film. The second <$commentary,audio commentary> features producers Charles Roven and Edward McDonnell who shed a lot of light on the production from a slightly less technical angle. It oftentimes focuses on the actors and the meaning of the film in general. It too is a very interesting and informative <$commentary,commentary track>.

Then it was time to check out the other supplements on the disc and the amount of extras you can find on this <$RSDL,dual-layer> disc are outright mind-numbing. Presented in a number of menus, this release is chock-full with extras that cover all aspects of the production. The material never appears superficial and never seems to serve as filler. Everything has a purpose, which is to help viewers understand the intentions of the filmmakers, and the laborious procedure that they had to go through to bring "Three Kings" to life. A 20-minute "Making Of" documentary takes viewers behind the scenes and shows footage from the sets, interspersed with scenes from the movie. Here we get an overall impression what it must have been like on the sets of the movie where blistering heat and sandstorms made every move torturous. Then there is director David Russel’s video diary, a nice featurette recorded by the director with his camcorder. From early phone conversations with the producer, over a first meeting with George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg, to budget meetings at Warner Brothers and the finally movie’s premiere, you will find many interesting tidbits in this piece that are surprisingly revealing. I don’t even want to know how hard it must have been to get legal approval for all that intimate footage.

There is also a documentary with production designer Catherine Hardwicke in which she explains in detail how she designed the sets and how they were adjusted for use in the film. Taking viewers through each one of the sets we get a good idea how they were created from the ground up to eventually build the backdrop for the movie. The director of photography explains the usage of different film stock to obtain the signature look for "Three Kings" in yet another featurette. Using clips from the movie he explains how he achieved the particular look for many of the key scenes.
A short and funny look inside the acting process with Ice Cube is the icing on the cake – just don’t take it seriously.

Apart from these featurettes there is also a plethora of other information on the disc, such as production notes an different aspects of the movie, like the film stock, the origin’s the historical basis and more. A photo gallery deleted scenes with director’s commentary and the movie’s theatrical trailer are also part of this engrossing package.

"Three Kings" is surely not a movie for everyone. It takes a certain mindset and willingness to accept the wicked style of the film to appreciate the work director David Russel and his team created here. Showing the absurd scenario of these soldiers in a war they don’t understand – once again – interfering with power struggles that they don’t understand – once again – the film does a great job explaining that in the end the civil war between the Shiites and Saddam’s army was just as bloody as the large-scale bombings before. It was more personal and once again, the innocent participants are left without support in the middle of a war they did not start while the perpetrators fly off to safety. It is with this somber reminder that the movie climaxes as we finally see the men’s efforts pay off, although we are keenly aware that they fought only a very small battle and a lot more bloodshed is just around the corner. After a furious action spectacle, "Three Kings" closes with some great and memorable scenes that makes sure the film does not become a cliché, which is remarkable for an action picture like this. Warner Home Video has created an exceptional package with this DVD, one that will entertain you for hours and allows you to explore more of the technical and social context of the film. You just can’t afford to miss this release!